"He Would Still Be My Friend': She Stands by Former Pa. Priest Accused of Sexual Abuse
By Brandie Kessler
York Daily Record
October 2, 2018
For 76 of her 77 years, Sally Sneeringer has lived in the same house, in view of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Conewago Chapel in Adams County.
That is where she attended Mass every week, until last year.
“I had back surgery in ‘72 which left me with a brace on both legs,” Sneeringer said. “At one time, I did not need any other assistance, just the braces.”
As her mobility deteriorated, Sneeringer used a cane and eventually, a walker. These days she doesn’t get out much. Now, she said, her minister comes to her home to give her communion.
To help her tackle all the other tasks and errands in her life, Sneeringer has her lifelong family friend, Herbert Shank, to help.
Shank is among 301 priests accused of sexual abuse of children in a grand jury report released by the Pennsylvania Attorney General last month. He has lived with Sneeringer for more than 20 years.
Shank has been unavailable for comment despite multiple attempts by the York Daily Record. He was out at appointments on a recent Tuesday morning when Sneeringer talked about the allegations against him and how they don’t square with the man she knows.
Sneeringer said Shank told her about some of the allegations against him decades before the news was made public last month. Shank called Sneeringer and her late father back in the 1990s to tell them why he was leaving the ministry and that he was going into a treatment facility, Sneeringer said. She and her father discussed it with Shank then, eventually allowing him to move in with them.
“And I have not mentioned it in over 20 years,” Sneeringer said Sept. 25, sitting at her dining table. “Until this grand jury report, I mentioned it to no one.”
‘I never questioned’ Shank
|Rev. Herbert J. Shank (Photo: Submitted)|
Sneeringer’s grandparents built the house she now shares with Shank. It sits in the 700 block of Edgegrove Road, on the corner of Peanut Drive. Her father bought it from her grandparents years ago, then eventually Sneeringer bought it from her father.
Back in the '90s, when Shank left the ministry and went to a rehab facility for priests, he had no living family.
Sneeringer's parents and Shank’s parents were friends before the two of them were born. She knew Shank growing up, but he was never her priest since he was never assigned to the basilica.
In 1994, when Shank left St. Rose of Lima in York, where he had been the parish priest for 10 years, Shank called Sneeringer and her father to tell them what happened.
“He said he left there for the reason of the massaging and that he was going to the Institute of the Living (in Connecticut,)” Sneeringer said. Shank told her he had given massages to boys. The conversation was short, she said. “I left it at that. I never questioned anything else.”
Sneeringer said she has never wanted to ask Shank anything more about what he did, and that if he wanted to talk about it with her, he could do that, but she wasn’t going to bring it up.
However, she said she had read portions of the grand jury report, including the pages where the allegations against Shank were described.
According to the grand jury report, several victims contacted the Diocese of Harrisburg years ago to say Shank molested them.
One said Shank showed him a box full of photos of half-naked boys his age.
|Sally Sneeringer says she sees the good in all people. She believes that even though Herbert Shank was named in the grand jury report for alleged child sexual abuse, that he's a good man. The two have been living together for the past two decades. Shank has helped care for Sneeringer, since her mobility is limited. (Photo: Ty Lohr, York Daily Record)|
Another, who was in the 6th grade and acting as an altar boy when he met Shank, said the priest molested him between 1971 and 1974. Initially, the victim said, Shank took him and other boys to drive-in movies, swimming and on field trips to other states.
That led to Shank taking him to different places alone, and eventually to the boy being sexually abused by Shank, according to the grand jury report. "Shank gave him massages which led to overnight stays with this victim that included naked rubdowns, kissing and Shank photographed the victim," including the victim's penis. The victim remembered he was under the age of 16 when the incident happened.
One of the victims speaks out
In 1995, the Diocese of Harrisburg turned over “photographic negatives and videotape cassettes” to the York County District Attorney’s Office, according to the grand jury report.
Shank was never charged, and it’s unclear what investigation, if any, was done.
The York County District Attorney’s office said recently that it has no evidence on file in this case, and it appears likely that any evidence it had received has been destroyed.
More: Evidence of priest abuse sent to York County DA in 1995, but no charges filed, report says
Another victim of Shank's, who spoke with the York Daily Record on Thursday, and who the York Daily Record is not naming to protect his privacy, said Shank's physical contact with him was not harmless massaging.
Now in his 40s, this man said he knew Shank while Shank was at St. Patrick's in Carlisle. During that time, when the victim was a boy in his early teens, Shank touched his buttocks and genitals during naked massages.
The victim described going on trips with Shank, including one where the two swam naked together. He said Shank "was always taking pictures," and "any opportunity he had to get me to shower or to get me naked, he would take it."
He recalled being naked in Shank's room at the rectory at St. Patrick's, lying on Shank's bed, as Shank stood over him wearing "tighty-whities," massaging his buttocks and genitals with baby oil.
When they spent the night together, the victim said, Shank had them both sleep in their underwear in the same bed.
When Shank left St. Rose of Lima in York in 1994 to go to a treatment center for priests, he stopped by the boy's house in Carlisle. Shank told him and his father that he was going to a treatment facility for priests and the Diocese of Harrisburg might be contacting them.
"If Herbert Shank didn't do all these things," this man asked, "then why would he come to my house and warn me we might be contacted by the Harrisburg diocese because he was being kicked out?"
Faith and friendship has not wavered
|The Rev. Herbert Shank, pictured in a St. Rose of Lima directory from 1994. (Photo: Submitted)|
Sneeringer said she has seen many news reports about priests, such as Shank, who have been accused in the grand jury report.
“I’ll just tell you, no one ever asks, 'Do any of these accused ever do anything good?'” she said. “So, if you don’t mind, I’d like to tell you some of the good things he has done for my family.”
When he first moved in, Shank helped Sneeringer care for her father, she said, who was in his 90s, for two years until he had to move into a home.
He was there for her when her father died in 2000.
Shank helped care for her through four major operations.
“He was the one who took me for treatment and my follow-ups for my battle with cancer,” she said.
Shank sat with Sneeringer's sister-in-law when she was ill and hospice was brought in, so that Sneeringer's brother could run errands. At the time, Sneeringer said, Shank was recuperating from quadruple bypass surgery.
“Two and a half years ago, we buried my brother, his daughter and her husband within a nine-month period, and he (Shank) was there for support the whole time,” Sneeringer said.
All that she knows about her lifelong friend doesn’t fit with what he’s been accused of, she said.
“As a person, I’ve known him all my life,” she said. “He’s lived here over 20 years, so I know what kind of person he is.”
Sneeringer said she is skeptical of the accusations and the grand jury report, because if there was video evidence of sexual abuse as the grand jury indicates, “Why didn’t the authorities do something then?” she said.
Even if her belief were to be proven wrong, and Shank himself admitted to the accusations or physical evidence was produced to prove he did what the grand jury report says he did, Sneeringer said, her feelings about him wouldn’t change.
“He would still be my friend,” she said, adding, “He would still be welcome to stay here.”
‘He is not a threat to anyone’
|The home of Herbert Shank in Conewago Township, one of the 301 priests accused of sexually abusing children according to a recent grand jury report detailing incidents in six Catholic dioceses. The home is within sight of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Conewago Chapel. (Photo: Paul Kuehnel, York Daily Record)|
Sneeringer said she read a recent article by the York Daily Record about Shank and other priests who live in communities where their neighbors aren’t aware of the accusations against them, since they haven’t been charged and don’t show up on Megan’s Law.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro said during the grand jury presentment on Aug. 14 that most of the accused priests who are alive cannot be charged because the statute of limitations has expired.
In the article, Sneeringer's neighbor Nancy Worley talked about her concerns upon learning Shank had been named in the grand jury.
Worley bought the house across the street from Sneeringer and Shank in July with the intention of renting it out. When she was told of the allegations against Shank that were described in the grand jury report, Worley said she was concerned about the safety of any potential tenants with children she would rent to.
Sneeringer countered Worley’s concern.
“Herbert is not a threat,” Sneeringer said. “He is not a threat to anyone.”
Even if the accusations against him stemming from the 1990s or earlier are true, Sneeringer said, “I really in my heart of hearts do not … believe that he is a threat. Maybe he was then. He is not now.”
Worley, who was still doing renovations in the house in late-September, responded to Sneeringer's sentiment.
"He's a documented threat," Worley said, referring to the grand jury report.
Sneeringer said she is so confident that Shank is not a threat to children that she has had children to her home to do chores. Last year she had a freshman boy and a sophomore boy come to her house and clean out the basement.
“I have an 8th-grader engaged to come next month, since it’s getting cooler out, to clean out the attic,” she said in late-September. “I have no qualms as to having any children here.”
Sneeringer said she talked with that boy's mother about Shank, and the mother is not concerned about having her son come to the house.
Sneeringer also said that none of her nieces or nephews, or great-nieces or great-nephews who came to the house when they were younger and while Shank lived there have ever said Shank did anything inappropriate with them.
“I’ve spoken to one or two of them about it, and they don’t have much to say about it,” she said of the allegations against Shank. “With my family, they would have said something, ‘Herb did this,’ or ‘Herb did that.’ They would have said something.”
Sneeringer said she does have empathy and compassion for the victims of clergy sexual abuse, that she has for decades.
“I went on a retreat in 1969 and our retreat master was an Augustinian minister from Florida, and back in 1969, he said you’ve got to pray for the abused,” she said. “To this day, I pray for all victims.”
But those are not the only people she prays for, she said.
She recalled what her father told her many, many times throughout her life.
“He said Christ died on a cross for our sins, and we pray for the sinner and ask for forgiveness. And I’ve always lived by that.”